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13.2: Nonrenewable Energy Resources

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  • Fossil fuels are by far the most significant energy source for most countries worldwide, and these resources are nonrenewable, or in finite supply. Fossil fuels are burned in electric power plants, and provide energy to power vehicles, aircraft, and ships. While the technology exists to burn fossil fuels in power plants so that the emissions are not particularly significant in terms of air pollution, air quality reduction because of the combustion of fossil fuels is still considerable and is a cause for concern at the international level.

    The major fossil fuels are coal, oil, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are formed from ancient living matter. In the case of coal, this fossil fuel was likely formed from primordial plant material in swamps that was buried and metamorphosed through time. The origin of oil and natural gas is attributed to microscopic organisms that sank to the bottom of prehistoric oceans and over time, transformed into these two fossil fuels.

    The countries that hold the greatest share of fossil fuel proven reserves, or deposits that can be recovered with some certainty, are varied. For coal, the United States has the largest reserves, followed by Russia and China. In the case of oil, the vast majority of proven reserves are located in the Middle East in countries like Saudi Arabia (with the largest reserves) and Canada. Other countries that hold substantial reserves include Iraq and Venezuela. Lastly, for natural gas, Russia and the Iran have the largest reserves. These statistics do not take into account potential reserves of fossils fuels, or fossil fuels that may be exist but have not been definitively verified. One example of potential reserves in the United States is the Green River Formation in parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. This large deposit of shale rock may contain up to three trillion barrels of oil, only half of which is recoverable (7). 1.5 trillion barrels of oil, though, is roughly equivalent to the entire world’s proven oil reserves. The Green River Formation is not likely to be tapped because of complications associated with extracting oil from the rock, as the process would require heating the rock and using significant quantities of water in a rather arid region. Another example of potential reserves is the deposits of oil and gas in the Arctic, a region that has not been extensively explored, but the melting of sea ice caused by rising temperatures in the Arctic is increasing opportunities for experimental drilling.

    The countries that have the largest reserves are not necessarily the countries with the leading amount of fossil fuel production. Production refers to the extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth by drilling and mining. The leading coal producers are China, India, and the United States, largely because of significant demands for electric power. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States currently lead the world in oil production. Natural gas is extracted most heavily in the United States and Russia.

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